In My Humble Opinion...

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Trail Blazer, Leave Taker

6/21/2018

Ladies, meet my new shero: Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.

On Thursday, June 21, Ardern took bold action when it comes to advancing the twin causes of feminism and gender equality. She announced that she is taking some time off following the birth of her baby.

Even before this announcement, 36 year-old Ardern had some impressive credentials. In 2017, she became the world’s youngest female leader, and she’s only the second elected world leader to give birth while in office. (Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the first. That was almost thirty years ago.)

But other accomplishments notwithstanding, Ardern’s decision to take maternity leave is what makes her a true difference maker. That’s because she is the first world leader to do so.

In this way, Ardern is adding some badly needed balance to what success and leadership look like for women. For too long, the idea that women can make it to the top in business or politics has come with a pretty big asterisk. According to the fine print, our success was conditioned on the requirement that we act as much like our male counterparts as possible. Male leaders do not give birth, of course. And with very few exceptions (I’m sending a dreamy look your way, Justin Trudeau), they don’t even take a leave time off when someone else in their family does.

The power structure has come to grudgingly accept that among the small number of women in leadership positions, an even smaller number of those will have babies during their careers. But that same power structure has taken the position that if a woman of rank doesn’t want her career to suffer, she’d better be at the office up until the moment it’s time to go to the hospital and hurry back as soon the baby is delivered. Otherwise she risks being viewed as undependable or lacking the requisite commitment to the job.

For too long, women leaders have played by these rules, taking conference calls from their hospital beds immediately before and after giving birth, and taking no more than a day or two off. That’s what Benazir Bhutto did.

In the last decade, there has been the occasional woman leader who had enough clout to bring her baby with her when she returned to work. This usually involved converting a spare conference room into a private nursery, staffing it with a nanny, and parking the baby there. This model made it easier for a woman executive to maintain a crazy work schedule while still occasionally seeing her baby.

Yelp CEO Marissa Mayer did that in 2013. But Mayer’s approach wasn’t a sign of progress for women everywhere; it was proof of the power she personally had amassed. It helped Mayer and her own baby, but it didn’t advance the cause.

More recently, women leaders have taken mini maternity leaves—measured in days rather than weeks. That was Mayer’s approach in 2015, when after giving birth to twins, she took 14 days of leave rather than the 16 weeks that Yelp generally offers employees.

Let me be clear about this: I am not criticizing women who choose to take ridiculously short maternity leaves or even skip them altogether. It’s their right to do so. But while they shouldn’t be criticized for this decision, they shouldn’t be commended for it, either. By continuing to follow the workaholic model of success, they are neither helping to advance the interests of women in the workplace generally or in leadership specifically.

We do not need any more examples of women who succeed by grinding away at the office for every waking moment of their lives and averaging four hours of sleep a night. The Notorious RBG model of success has been the only one available to women for decades now. To move our cause forward, we need women who make it to the top—and then hold their positions there—by being bold enough to give more than lip service to work-life balance.

Think about it: Not all men who hold positions of power spend every waking moment at work. Some do, for sure. But plenty of others do not. So, why is that still the only blueprint for success for women who want to occupy the corner office? There are a variety of work styles among men who have made it to the top. It is time to have a variety of work styles for women, as well.

By having the confidence and good sense to take six full weeks of maternity leave, Ardern has done a huge favor for not just career women, but society as a whole.

And for that, Jacinda Ardern is my new shero.